Ad of the Day: inside Don’t Panic’s poignantly captured film of war-torn Ukraine
The shoot took place over three days in various locations to highlight the resilience of the Ukrainian people and the devastation that has occurred over the past year.
In the year since Russia invaded Ukraine, thousands of civilians have died and millions have fled or are displaced within the country itself. To help raise funds quickly and efficiently for the Ukrainian people, The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) brought together 15 UK aid charities to ask people to dig deep into their pockets. To date, the British people have donated £400m.
Through this campaign film titled ‘Never Alone’ from Stink Productions and Don’t Panic, the impact of these contributions and the realities of life in Ukraine today are laid bare for the world to see.
“The brief had a bit of knife edge,” confesses creative partner Rick Dodds. Alongside his colleague Leo Maguire, he wrote and co-directed the ad. “If we’re too congratulatory to the British public it sounds a little tone-deaf, the conflict in Ukraine isn’t over. Although the amount of money raised and the donations are helping millions, the real heroes are the Ukrainians. We had to be careful not to step over into savior-ism.”
It was a challenging brief to start with, so the team began by looking at it as if the UK was a friend of Ukraine. How might that translate into poetry, literature or song? After experimenting with around 30 different music choices, they settled on You’ll Never Walk Alone by Gerry and the Pacemakers.
“You’re finding lyrics that resonate already with the British public, and then hopefully, there’s enough depth in those lyrics so the Ukrainian cast could almost make them their own.”
Each sentence took on a different meaning when put through the lens of a person living in the warzone, as all of the actors featured were. “The track has a sense of defiance.”
The film was shot in Ukraine by a service company called Radioaktive that was already on the ground and had the necessary equipment, with Dodds team directing from London. “That gave us a kind of visual tapestry to this film that that we didn't know if we would have,” adds Dodds. “The swings in front of the burned-out buildings, that is actually where kids now play. They became such powerful visuals.”
The remote shoot was similar to the ones he had conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic. “In one sense, it kind of focuses the mind because all you can see is what the camera can see,” he continued. “In reality, it’s incredibly restricting because you can’t just look to the right and see a better shot.” Even simple directions become difficult because the creatives were in a 2D space on the screen trying to coordinate someone in a 3D surrounding. Then throw in the intense complexities of trying to make this project within an active war zone into the mix.
“We had a three-day shoot,” explains the creative. “Often what would happen is we might be halfway through directing a performance, and all of a sudden, they would have a power cut at their end and all the screens would go dark.
“The telephone masses would go off too so they couldn’t phone us to tell us if they were all ok. It was just radio silence, and we’d just sit there. Sometimes we had to wait an hour or two and then they would pop back on.” At times, the team in the UK feared the worst. The writer confesses that it really was extraordinary to work with them.
“That’s the technical side, there’s also the human side,” he adds. “Everybody in the film is actors, but at the same time they’re human beings who have lived through a warzone for the last 12 months and continue to do so.”
While the team in the UK was giving feedback and direction, they were starkly aware there had to be a great sensitivity to the gravity of the situation. One of the actors was just four years old. Dodds said he was dedicated to his craft and perfecting his performance, yet he had spent a significant part of the last year of his life living in a bunker.
Being emotionally aware was crucial, as was the safety of everyone involved. “We had a safety director,” confirms Dodds. “He sat separately to the production and his role wasn’t to make sure that we got the shots, he wasn’t involved in the creative side of it at all, he assessed if it was safe to shoot.” They deliberately chose areas that hadn’t seen conflict for some time, but of course, at any point in time, the team might have needed to take shelter. “Everybody’s position was safety first, shoot second.”
What was creatively interesting, explains Dodds, is that people are used to seeing war zones being shown through documentaries or a journalistic lens but they wanted to introduce a cinematic touch when filming this campaign, which lands it somewhere in the middle of those two genres. “That felt, from a creative point of view, a really kind of fresh, interesting place to explore.”
Dodds has likened the project to a ‘time capsule’ and was adamant that the footage had to be obtained in February 2023, one year from the invasion to highlight the stark contrast.
“This what Ukraine looks like; these are the people living here at this moment. So it was a way to cinematically capture them. This is how the country looks, feels and operates.”
Once they had all the footage, the editing process took an interesting turn. “We were cutting to the order of the lyrics,” explains the creative, adding that during post-production they played about with whether to have people talking to the camera or not. In one scene, when the doctor is talking to the camera “you feel like she’s talking to you, but when she’s just looking at you, you feel that she’s looking into your soul a little bit.”
How they were going to present the song choice was also discussed during the edit, the obvious thing to do would be to record a different iteration of the classic tune, but that would have put the lyrics back in “our world” which would not have been appropriate in this instance. They needed to have a different soundscape underneath the lyrics. Dodds confesses that he is a huge Max Richter fan but knew it would be difficult to get him to work on the campaign.
As fate would have it though, a friend was able to get the project in front of Richter to ask him to do the track, which he agreed to quickly. Something that the team is grateful for.
Charity comms are so often about showing aid, but collectively the team behind this campaign wanted to connect people and show the relationship between two countries. The film will be across TV and social for the next couple of weeks.
“Hopefully the success of it will mean that the British public can really feel a deep connection with the Ukrainian people that they’ve helped, and the need to continue and play our part in helping those who need it.”